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Widows of U.S. Veterans sue to get Wiccan religious symbol on military headstones

AP, via the International Herald Tribune, USA
Nov. 13, 2006 • Tuesday November 14, 2006

MADISON, Wisconsin: The widows of two Wiccan combat veterans sued the government Monday, saying the military has dragged its feet on allowing the religion’s symbols on headstones.

The Department of Veterans Affairs allows military families to choose any of 38 authorized headstone images. The list includes commonly recognized symbols for Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, as well as those for smaller religions such as Sufism Reoriented, Eckiankar and the Japanese faith Seicho-No-Ie.

The Wiccan pentacle, a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle, is not on the list, an omission the widows say is unconstitutional.

Wiccans worship the Earth and believe they must give to the community. Some consider themselves “white,” or good, witches, pagans or neo-pagans. Approximately 1,800 active-duty service members identify themselves as Wiccans, according to 2005 Defense Department statistics.

The lawsuit was filed by four plaintiffs: Roberta Stewart, whose husband, Nevada National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in combat in Afghanistan last year; Karen DePolito, whose husband, Jerome Birnbaum, is a Korean War veteran who died last year; Circle Sanctuary, a Wisconsin-based Wiccan church; and Isis Invicta Military Mission, a California-based Wiccan and pagan congregation serving military personnel.

It claims that the VA has made “excuse after excuse” for more than nine years for not approving the symbol and that by doing so, it has trampled on the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights of freedom of speech, religion and due process.

Circle Sanctuary and Stewart began calling in 1997 for the VA to allow the symbol’s use.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based group representing the plaintiffs in court, is seeking an order compelling the VA to make a decision.

“After asking the VA on a number of occasions to stop its unfair treatment of Wiccans in the military, we have no alternative but to seek justice in the courts,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, the group’s executive director.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Madison and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington.

In memos and letters cited by the lawsuit, Lindee L. Lenox, director of memorial programs for the veterans agency, said the government was reviewing the process for evaluating and approving new emblems and would not accept new applications until the review was complete.

The VA issued a statement Monday that outlined the procedure under way to create uniform standards under which new symbols can be accepted, but did not comment on the lawsuit itself.

Stewart said she wants the lawsuit to send a message that the government cannot pick and choose which faiths appear on headstones.

“I’m hoping it’s going to open the door to allow other pagan faiths to be approved,” Stewart said.

Attorneys for Americans United argued in legal papers that it makes no sense for Wiccans to be excluded, saying that the Army allows Wiccan soldiers to list their faith on dog tags, that Wiccan organizations are allowed to hold services on military installations and that the Army Chaplains Handbook includes an explanation of the religion.

Associated Press writer Matt Apuzzo in Washington contributed to this report.

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